12 July 2010
Date: Mon, 12 Jul 2010 11:58:21 +0200
(in the pipe-line: update to the Google book)
The situation with the social media - a position paper
"Open is not Free, and publishing is not the same as to make public"
Many years have passed since the Ippolita Collective started making a distinction between 'opening up to the free market', as is propounded by the gurus of the Open Source movement, and the freedom the Free Software movement posits as the bedrock of its vision of the digital world (N1): "Free software is a matter of liberty, not price" (N2).
Open Source as a concept is solely devoted to finding out the best methods to spread a product in an open manner, where open is to be understood purely within the logic of the market. The hacker attitude, based on play and sharing amongst peers, has been co-opted therein by an approach that is based on the logic of exploitation of time and labor with profit as the driving motive, and not individual and/ or collective welfare.
Following upon "Open does not mean free", Ippolita's inquiry into Google - the very embodiment of an attempt to reach total hegemony "on all the world's knowledge" - proceeded from the same approach (N3). Which is to show how the logic of 'Open', combined with a Californian philosophy of academic excellence, saw in the motto "Don't be evil", the perfect excuse to let itself be corrupted and enter the service of 'abundance capitalism', the illusory fast-forward capitalist belief in the-sky-is-the-limit growth (cf. the 6th tenet of the Google gospel: "You can make money without doing evil" (N4). The catch phrase (and trap) is "more, bigger. faster" - as if that is always better by default. "Tomorrow Is Another Day", and it's gonna be a Better Day as there is the faith glowing in the bushes, a faith embodied by the "I am feeling lucky" button. The message is that this is a technology that is good by definition, as it originates from impartial scientific research, and the satisfaction of all our needs and desires is there, at once, and without effort - just a mouse-click away.
Unfortunately, this pretense of 'totalitarian informationism' is less ridiculous than would appear at first sight. Because if one would come to the conclusion that there is actually nothing left to produce, and especially that unlimited growth is a perfect delusion, and that even in the digital world, then the rush toward the next gadget as dazzling as it is useless might well petter out. A collapse of growth would be the next thing. Then a spark of consciousness could arise in our exhausted world, and instead of driving full speed towards the abyss with the loudspeakers turned on to the max, we might well start looking around us, and look our neighbors into the eyes, and talk to each other, share and exchange what we need, and imagine and build something that is really meaningful.
Well, not so. Once this gigantic technological machine was put in place with the help of data-centers, first class brains and open source code - those being rapidly foreclosed with NDAs (N5) - the need for content became pressing. Any content. content that was as cheap as possible, or better still: for free. The industrial production of absolute trash could take flight, with zero costs and super-profits for the unknown celebrities, but how?
Meanwhile the Net was becoming mainstream. Slowly, broadband connections became less asymmetrical (mostly thanks to subsidies and deficit funding by the public sector aimed at closing 'the digital gap' - yet another form of corporate welfare ) Connectivity fees have gone down (but not nearly enough) and upload volumes have increased. And here comes the solution to all our problems: transferring all users data (that is what is stocked in their PCs, laptops, mobile phones, cameras, etc.) as low-hanging fruits of the opening of the 'free market', that is to publish everything, and make it accessible to anyone. Here we see what must be the most powerful 'Weapon of Mass Distraction' ever deviced (N6), or how to spread satisfaction amongst the various users of so-called 'Web 2.0' services who harbor an irrepressible urge to post, tag, comment, or link pictures, videos, tweets, SMSs, being it their own of those of their 'friends', in the wide ocean of the social networks. And why would that belong to them since it is hosted by somebody else: FaceBook, Flickr, MySpace, Twitter, Netlog, Youtube - you name it. Users are over-joyous and excited to have on their desk and in their pockets the very latest expensive self-snitching device, which is forever online and includes an embedded GPS. Thanks to the latter, they'll soon be able to go shopping and leave their credit cards at home, so that 'those-who-should-be-in-the-know' do indeed know what pleases us, where we are, what we buy, and what we are doing, with whom. Or whatever.
And so, welcome to the present! But Unlike those times when Ippolita was shouting in the desert of geek enthusiasm that it might be preferable not to 'put everything on Google", since allowing for this marks the beginning of technocratic domination, now there are many voices raised against 'social networks'. They stand accused of stealing people's private life, and of being the outcome of a bogus revolutionary ideology. Maybe the Internet itself is a social movement, but then a very elitist one, and riddled with contradictions (N7). As some influential commentators have noted, FaceBook in particular has a business model based on 'radical transparency' (N8). It is thus in the very nature of Facebook to publish everything, period, as can be seen from its latest policy developments (N9). It should also be remembered that Facebook's sponsors are members of the 'Paypal Mafia', that they maintain close links with civil and military intelligence services, and that they support extreme right-wing libertarian politicians (to wit, these same people thought that Bush Sr. was a 'moderate') (N10). There is even somebody at Harvard who dares to mention from the height of his chair that there might be something like a social media bubble, and that has also economic aspects. Nobody has yet been able to prove that social media do push sales of personalized products thanks to targeted advertising (N11). Yet even fans are starting to fret about Facebook's ambitions (N12).
The current situation is bad. But that is an old story. we have not ended up in this situation out of the blue. If you have been following the discussions in the tech world, on iPhone then iPad, Android, Windows7, Facebook and Chatroulette, you'll only wonder about the bottomless naivety of net-gurus, tech-fans, and men-on-the-street alike. And you can also hear a bitter chortle, coming from far away Italy (but our own home, at least as 'forma mantis' - mindset) where videocracy rules against our wishes, and where at least it is entirely obvious that our rights will not be protected by the so-called democratic institutions, and that it won't be the ministrations of some charitable, progress-oriented multinational, that will bestow upon us, free of costs, an open spirit and the benefits of freedom.
What was true yesterday is today even more. And we are certainly not the first one to state that one must be able to imagine one's future in order to understand one's present, while remembering one's past. And this (we add) should take place within the process of creating a collective history. Memory is a collective device, as nothing ever repeats itself again in the same form, and yet the differences look very much alike, and yesterday's bland broth, hardly stale today, might well be dished out to-morrow under the guise of a radical innovation. If it happens that our mental world is mostly constituted by what adds, television, and such like outfits are telling us, and which finds its concretization in the 'freedom to choose' between 70.000 different iPhone apps (if you have really nothing better to do, you could go at it: at the rate of ten a day, it will merely keep you busy for the next twenty years), or the opportunity to have more than 500 'friends' on Facebook (one dinner each will barely enable you to meet every one of them once every two years), well then, maybe be didn't stress enough the necessity to desire and to imagine something better after all.
It may be totally useless, yet writing is fun - and even enjoyable. To write makes us feel good, even if it is an activity replete with misunderstandings and difficulties, and it is tiring to boot. It is time snatched from the necessity otherwise to earn a living. We enjoy imagining escape lines, and we try to express them, to device tools to fulfill our desires. To write is to make those available to a public made up of individual people, yet without making use of a proprietary megaphone owned by some intrusive multinational corporation.
There are many of us in the same situation: we don not want to 'co-operate', we do not want to be part of the social media's crowdsourcing drive. But we are not part either of 'Multitude' or 'Empire', which are categories out of hegemonic thought identifying classes and interests and organizing the struggle that in any case ends up with (new) oppressed and (new) oppressors. It's not difficult to see the parallel between an analysis of the network as a multitude and the theory of NetWar. Liberal-fascist NetWar theoreticians - especially John Arquilla - are far closer to Negri-inspired social network leftists for comfort. Both parties' basic idea is the necessity to conquer hegemony. Whether on the right or on the left, the issue the reticular space of networks is looked at from a polemical perspective: war and conquest. And even though they may look to stand at opposite pole, they share the same way of thinking (N14). The network analysis terminology itself, including that of social networks, is heavily militarized. And if you look at the basic components computers are made of, you see metal-based semiconductors the raw material of which is sourced from territories engulfed in a permanent armed conflict because of them, eg. Central Africa. The globalization of markets means foremost the globalization of exploitation: our ergonomic instruments are produced by armies of industrial workers in Asia, and more specifically in China, a country where workers have to sign a legal document affirming they did not commit suicide in the factory. Well, thanks for letting us know, guys! And meanwhile, as we are purchasing the latest in useless gadget technology, we might enjoy the thought that a few rachitic trees have been planted to compensate for the discharge of CO2 their manufacture entailed. Alas, also green capitalism is and remains a daft pipe-dream, like each and every productivist ideology.
Despite our own immersion in this technology-driven world we would like to try to maintain some distance and to write an ethnography of sorts of social media. Not about how these work (there are handy manuals to that effect), but about how we have ended up into this, and how to exercise some influence, by injecting the heterogenous, chaos, and seeds of autonomy into them. We too are involved and compromised (like everybody else, in matters of ICT), but that does not mean that one has to give in to everything without consideration. It is from out a collective experience that individual inferences are made possible about an alienation process that finds its origins in the inner self. The savages are us. We need a defiantly subjective viewpoint and not the pretense of objectivity of an outside observer. Fortunately, the myth of academic objectivity only survives in the second rate regions of scientific vulgarization. More than a century ago, so-called hard sciences accepted relativism, it is now time for the 'human sciences' to do the same in a determined way. What we need is radical relativism, we need to take distance from ourselves in order to understand what we are doing, to give our actives a concrete signification in order to communicate it in a public domain that needs to preserved, build again, and relentlessly renegotiated. To use Hanna Harendt's terms: we need to develop a discourse that defines our action in research (N15).
So we have already a few ideas. If you have ideas too, do tell us!
Q&D translation by Patrice Riemens
# distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without